Gendered Conference Campaign – update and response

Earlier today I posted on an all-male conference line-up and reported that I had written a letter. The organiser of the conference has gotten back to me very quickly, which was extremely instructive. The conference organisers have clearly considered the issues that the gendered conference campaign is concerned with and, since the aim of the campaign is in part to learn how all-male line-ups come about, has subsequently given permission to post his response in full – see below.

I am sure that there is room for disagreement about the specifics. But I thought that his finding that all invited women had declined, and that all invited men had said yes, was interesting. I remember us discussing that on this blog recetly, but – alas – couldn’t find the thread. Can anyone please help – I would like to share it with the organiser?

Then, with thanks: 

As for the absence of women speakers at our conference, you might be surprised to learn that we agree with you! Our conference would be better were the speakers more diverse. As it happens, our two top choices for speakers (after Singer) were women: [name omitted for privacy purposes] and [name omitted for privacy purposes]. Both turned us down. The conference is divided into a variety of smaller topics and, as luck would have it, the ‘backup’ speakers for these speakers’ topics were men. None of the men we invited turned us down (some of the ‘backups’ for their topics were women).

So in this case, I think we might have to chalk it up to the luck of which speakers—at the relevant academic ability, with knowledge of the requisite topic—happened to be both available and willing to participate. It was indeed a disappointment to us when both declined to take part.

I noticed on your blog that you seemed particularly troubled that we would address abortion without a female speaker. As it happens, abortion was not originally going to be discussed, but one of our speakers switched his topic to abortion just a couple weeks ago, long after the speaker line-up was set.

So on all of that, I think you and I are in full agreement. Where it is possible we might disagree is whether, given the above situation, we ought to have found a substitute female speaker no matter what. In other words, must every conference always have at last one female speaker? Not necessarily. For any academic conference, the speakers must possess a knowledge of the relevant field, display academic excellence, be eloquent and respected in their field, and so on. Gender is indeed one factor in choosing a speaker, but at least on my view, it cannot be an overriding factor. I am not interested in the ‘tokenal’ approach of choosing a speaker purely because of his or her gender (or race). We choose the invited women speakers because they are the leading, intentional experts for the respective topics. It was beneficial that, as women, their perspectives would have represented one that would otherwise be absent. But we didn’t choose them because they were women, as if we needed a ‘token woman’ to show up. Yet for the same reasons, we would not choose a replacement solely for reasons of gender.

It may be worth adding that this conference was particularly difficult to find suitable speakers for, given how controversial Singer’s views are. Even though you found the phrase ‘genuine exchange’ something to mock, we are determined that it will be both a cordial and forthright exchange. We discovered, as we considered various speakers, that many were interested only in a platform to challenge Singer, and not in a charitable conversation. This led us to cross-off a number of potential speakers (both men and women), leading to a smaller pool than otherwise.

With kindest regards,
John Perry

McDonald Fellow for Christian Ethics & Public Life

Christ Church

University of Oxford

Thanks, again, John for letting me share!

22 thoughts on “Gendered Conference Campaign – update and response

  1. Definitely kudos to John Perry for the civility, the recognition of the importance of the issue, and the openness about the problems faced: if everyone responded like this, much of the main battle would be won.

  2. I agree that John Perry’s post was in its overall attitudes very welcome. But I couldn’t help but think, as he listed the necessary qualifications to be invited–knowledge in the field, academic excellence, be respected etc.,–that it shouldn’t be all THAT hard to find women who meet these qualifications.

  3. I’m a little confused. Is there a contradiction between believing that organizers should include women in the line up and believing that conference organizers should not pick people because they’re women? After first explaining that gender diversity counts, Perry gives a list of criteria for choosing speakers that does not include gender. I don’t mean to be callow, nor do I mean to criticize Perry for his bad luck with invitees. But it’s hard to tell what sort of consideration gender receives in his process. If gender is a factor for choosing a speaker, granted not an overriding one, why isn’t gender diversity a requirement for the conference the same as academic excellence?

    Also, it’d be nice to know if any women were involved in the planning of these events.

  4. We hear quite often in response to these letters that women were asked, but declined. The links provided by Kathryn above provide some possible reasons.

    I wonder whether conference organizers (or perhaps the gendered conference campaign) have asked the women invited why they declined? (Would that be too invasive or rude? I am not sure). If there is a pattern (e.g. family responsibilities and lack of conference child-care, as the above link suggests), then could this be something that conference organizers ought to be considering?

    Many of the conference organizers the campaign has contacted write back to say they did ask women who declined. They do not usually say that they had thought of designing the conference to accommodate women speakers, or providing any of the things women might need in order to attend the conference.

    It is also possible that well-known women in philosophy are over-committed (since they are underrepresented relative to men) and so their schedules make attendance impossible. But even this has been addressed on this site.

    It seems it would be worthwhile to have some data on the reasons women are declining the invitations.

  5. So what’s wrong with civilly and cordially asking the speaker who so conveniently changed his mind about his topic to please change it back again?

    Why would a Xtian male who’s scheduled to speak on one topic just suddenly wake up and say “Oh, I think I’ll be discussing abortion instead”?

    And why was he NOT considered to be one of the uncharitable speakers who “was only looking for a platform to challenge Singer”? Why was HE not crossed off the list of speakers?

  6. Rather than asking why, for a particular confernece, a woman (or the women) declined an invitation (which for privacy reasons is difficult, if not impossible, to find out), perhaps as a second best, we could have a post which simply asks all women who read this blog (1) if they have, in the last XX months, turned down invitations, (2) if so, how many out of the total number of invitations, and (3) why they did so.
    Perhaps we can learn something from such an exercise?
    Of course, what you would really need is a social science scholar who takes a scientifically-valid sample of both men and women and asks them these questions. But as a first attempt, it may perhaps be useful.

  7. Thanks to John Perry for responding in such a constructive way and being open to the premises of the campaign.

    In answer to Xena – people change their minds about their conference topics all the time – people think they will have time to finish writing about x, but underestimate how long it’s going to take them to do all the tasks on their plate, so end up falling back on y. Or people end up working on x, go in a direction that is no longer suitable for the conference, so fall back on y. Etc. for countless reasons.

    It would be pretty unusual and indeed rude to remove someone from a list of speakers who have already been booked because they have changed their mind about their topic. John Perry was talking about removing people from a potential line-up on those grounds before they’d been invited.

  8. I suspect that an important factor here involves different contentions about, if not ignorance of and/or false beliefs about, who and how many female philosophers meet certain qualifications. Lots of biases probably at work here – that influence what people do and do not read, which philosophers people do and do not become familiar with, and so on, leading up to and including both various judgments about female philosophers and lack of judgments about female philosophers due to unjustified ignorance/unawareness/inattentiveness. Of course, there are all sorts of unfortunately familiar non-linear causal relations here involving the number of well qualified female philosophers (as well as which and how many philosophers become considered as “well known”, “leading experts”, and so on). Even so, I think we should also keep in mind and bring into whatever we are doing the aforementioned suspicions about ignorance, unawareness, and/or inattentiveness (regarding current/actual more than well qualified female philosophers) and the roles that such ignorance, unawareness, and/or inattentiveness do and do not serve in invitations, invitation decision processes, and so on.)

    Answers to the questions presented in the comments above should provide very useful information. Nonetheless, I fear we need also to remember that the problem is often deeper than why in certain contexts and/or on certain occasions female and male philosophers respond similarly and/or differently to invitations. Many answers to such questions are no doubt very important. Still, I fear very often we may have serious problems with invitations themselves (of the sort sketched in the first paragraph above).

  9. It is great to get such a careful and cooperative post from Perry.

    I do note that if I had some strong reason for having a speaker with feature X, this isn’t the way I’d go about it, especially if I knew the field had been inhospitable to X’s. Or, perhaps putting it a bit unfairly, if the goal is to have a diverse conference, the advice “Ask two and see” is not good advice.

    I’m beginning to wonder if one problem is that while more people see the need for a “equitable” distribution of invitations, the goal of a diverse conferene is less adopted.

    I put ‘equitable’ in brackets because equity in just one practice is problematic in a field shaped by misogyny.

  10. Why does everyone assume the speaker who changed his mind to discuss abortion is an opponent of abortion? I’m attending the conference and I heard that it’s Julian Savulescu, a former student of Singer and (if anything) a stronger supporter of abortion rights than Singer himself. I mean, is it less of a problem to have a man discussing abortion if he’s supporting its legality? Or is it only a problem to have a man discussion abortion if he’s opposing it?

  11. That was something else I meant to put in my comment – there’s nothing wrong with men discussing abortion. I think the worry was not to do with the opinions that might be espoused on the topic, but to do, instead, with the long history of men discussing women’s rights to abortion without anyone input from the women whose bodies are at issue.

  12. John Perry’s account of how this roster came about has a very simple moral: if you want gender balance, don’t issue all your invitations at the same time. Based on who responds to the first invitations, you can rethink your second (or third) round of invitations. This is different from winding up with an all male roster, and only then casting about for a token female.

  13. Yes, David, jj, monkey (re comment#14, grudging acceptance of and thanx for the facts in comment#9).

    mp, I’ll admit to my bias. When men discuss women’s reproductive rights with no input from women it IS important that all sides of the issue are given fair coverage.

  14. I second Ingrid’s suggestion at comment 8. I think it would be useful to open a post here for women to post reasons why they declined invitations to conferences, if they indeed did so (and also for women to say that they typically do NOT decline invitations, if that’s the case). It would be instructive, even if still at the level of anecdotal evidence. In my case at least, it’s all about planning: I try not to travel more than once a month, and the schedule must be compatible with my husband’s traveling schedule, which is even fuller. So if I am asked to attend a conference just a few months in advance, it is very unlikely that I will be able to accept.

  15. The visibility of women at conferences is valuable in itself. I disagree with the conference organizers that gender is not a criterion. I’m teaching an undergraduate course (second-year-students). In our philosophy department, I am the only woman who teaches an undergraduate course. My group is about 40% women (total: 75 students). I’ve noticed the women students are pleased to have a woman teaching them – I get a lot of feedback, questions from both male and female students during and after class. Yet I hear from my male colleagues that the women never speak out during their classes.
    I know this is not about gendered conferences, but it does indicate that it is important for junior women and female students to have female role models. Perhaps we ought to start a gendered faculty campaign (I know many faculties, like my own, where all the tenured staff are men, where women are in the minority even at the postdoc level).

  16. Ingrid and Catarina– great idea, will get a poll up shortly!

    Anonymous– all true. And we’re working to change it, but it’s much harder. And your story, incidentally, fits perfectly with the findings of a recent study:

  17. Hi.
    I read this blog fairly often and it seems like it’s time for me to say something (and then slink back into the woodwork).

    I’ve organized a couple of small conferences in my career. Both did have women, though in neither case did I make any attempt to seek out women. (My subfield is about the same percentage female as philosophy as a whole.) If you’d asked me, I guess I would have said (as many do) that it’s important to be fair, unbiased, in picking a program, but not too important to get women on every program.

    The GCC has changed my mind. I’m truly shocked by the number of conferences with no women at all on the list of speakers. Watching the examples roll in has been a real eye-opener. (I also think jj is exactly right to stress that no condemnation of a particular organizer or organizing group is implied — for me, it’s the accretion of the pile as opposed to any egregious particular that’s significant.)

    I’ve jumped two levels now. Next time I organize a conference, I will not only be sure to invite women as speakers, I’ll follow the advice here and do my inviting in a careful order. I think I can all but guarantee that I’ll have at least a couple of women, even on a small program.

    In short, your Campaign has ‘converted’ at least one male philosopher. For consequentialist reasons.

    Oh, and as long as I’m chiming in: I would feel extremely uncomfortable asking a woman (or a man) why she was declining my invitation. Typically a philosopher will say why (almost always: “I’m just too busy” or “I have a prior commitment” or some boring reason like that). If she didn’t, I would assume it would be truly prying to ask.

  18. Thanks, James– that’s fantastic to hear! Comments like yours are what keep us going, despite the bile we sometimes encounter.

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